Welcome to my first blog that I will be doing in series as a contributor for Shred the Classics. Here I will be discussing the subject of tuning from a perspective of an electric guitarist inside the world of classical music. In order to make this very easy to understand and to keep every entry as clean as possible, I will be dividing my blog by period in chronological order.
You may ask yourself:
Well, what does he mean by tuning in chronological order?
It’s very simple. It means that I will start with tuning in the Baroque period and advance forward. Right now I won’t go into the subject of tuning before the Baroque period for many reasons which I will explain later on, but I will go into that subject as we move forward. So let’s begin.
Modern Baroque historical performance, A=415 hz:
First of all, let’s start off by explaining the tuning frequency A=415hz, and since we are electric guitar players let’s start by focusing a little bit on that. Nowadays, one can go on YouTube and see hundreds of videos of electric guitar players performing music by Pachelbel, Albioni, Vivaldi, Telemann, and Bach amongst other Baroque composers. However, there is one big problem in all of them: tuning. During the Baroque period, one could find pitches ranging from A=380 hz to A=480 hz depending on the country and the city you were in; that is 100 hz of difference in the tuning system during the baroque period. That meant that organs and harpsichords in the same city were tuned to different pitches, which became a huge problem for a fixed-pitch instrument like the flute and the oboe, for example. Stringed instruments, on the other hand, had no problem adjusting to these pitches.
It’s important to notice that the tuning system standard today is set to A=440 hz, while the modern pitch for Baroque historical performance was set to A=415 hz.
The reason for this?
Well, it’s very simple. Like I stated before, during the Baroque period tuning changed between A=380 hz to A=480 hz, which means that a pitch of A=415 hz was used sometime during the 160 years of the Baroque movement. Since A=440 hz is standard nowadays, A=415 hz is a half step or a semitone below A=440 hz.
A 415 hz = A flat on a modern piano.
A 440 hz = A natural on a modern piano.
Now, here is one of the interesting points:
To perform on modern baroque historical performance pitch A=415 hz, our instrument must be tuned a half step down to E flat. Nonetheless, the music is still being played as if we were in standard tuning to A=440 hz. So basically we are reading from the score (just to say something) an open A on our 5th string, we play the open A but the sound we hear is that of an A flat, which is the whole point in all of this. This brings us to the interesting conclusion that an electric guitar tuned to E flat is ready for modern baroque historical performance most of the time. But be aware that there are a few exceptions, including the music that was written for the viola da gamba.
Viola da Gamba, the connection between the electric guitar and the Baroque period:
This subject is one of the main reasons why I wanted to start these series about the Baroque period. Basically, this is where we can take advantage of our instrument, the way it’s made, the way it’s tuned and the way it functions when it comes to Baroque music performance.
The viola da gamba is a fretted, bowed, stringed instrument that comes in many sizes. It was widely used during the baroque period and made famous by Viol masters Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais. At this time, this instrument has been gaining more popularity due to the fact that is widely used in period consorts after being kept in obscurity and being neglected for centuries. On the left side you can see a portrait of Marin Marais by André Bouys in 1704.
The standard tuning for a six and seven string bass viola da gamba is in fourths with a major third on the third string:
Six String Bass Viola da Gamba: D-G-C-E-A-D
Six String Guitar in drop D tuning: D-G-C-F-A-D
Seven String Bass Viola da Gamba: A-D-G-C-E-A-D
Seven String Guitar in drop A tuning A-D-G-C-F-A-D
If you see the comparison between the tuning in a bass viola da gamba and an electric guitar with scordatura, you will realize that the only difference is that of a half step on the third string.
This is amazing, isn’t it?
Yes, it is amazing indeed. Even so, you must remember that the drop D scordatura that I am suggesting here is based on an A=415 hz, so technically speaking we are on a C sharp scordatura in a six string guitar and a G sharp scordatura on a seven string guitar based on the standard A=440 hz that’s used today.
With all of this I am not trying to create confusion in any way but quite the contrary. Everything I have said so far can resumed to the following:
During the Baroque period, an A was seen as an A regardless of what the tuning system was between A=380 hz and A=480 hz, therefore what we must do is stick to this rule and see an A tuned to 415 hz as an A, instead of looking at it as an A flat based out of the 440 system, because that’s what creates confusion in all of this.
You might be thinking by now: “Well in any case, why did he bother to explain all of this just to get to that point?” The answer is simple. Whitouth explaining how this works there will never be a good understanding of the subject and how it is viewed from a historical performance point of view. This way we can make a connection between a stringed, bowed instrument from the Baroque period and our modern day electric guitar.
The reasons behind this “connection” that I am talking about has to do, first of all, with the fact that we share the same tuning, the size of the instrument comes very close, the timbrical quality is almost the same and most important, we share the same range of octaves in both instruments.
Below you can see a scene from the french film “Tous le matins du monde”, titled in English as “All the mornings of the world”, which documents the relationship between Marin Marais and his Viol teacher Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. In this particular scene, a young Marin Marais plays during an audition for Sainte-Colombe an improvisation over Les Folies de Spagne. The purpose of showing this short clip is so that you can see the similarities that it shares with our instrument.
Baroque music performance as an electric guitarist:
As you may be able to tell by now, there is a huge difference in the way a Baroque composition is played by electric guitar players today in a combination with a rock band, another electric guitar or electric bass tuned to A=440 hz, a piano track tuned in A=440 hz, an orchestral track tuned in A=440 hz or even a midi track, just like the hundreds of videos that we can find on YouTube. Then of course, there is a huge difference if we play for instance: a Baroque dúo sonata with electric guitar and the combination of a harpsichord tuned to A=415 hz, a concerto with an orchestral track tuned to A=415 hz and even a solo composition tuned to this frequency. It’s just not the fact that we must follow the pitch to which modern baroque historical performance is set today, but it has to do with a timbrical quality and a color that can be achieved by playing this music tuned to this frequency.
To wrap up this entry, I will add a couple of videos so that the idea of how Baroque historical performance is executed by some of the greatest masters of our time. My intention with this blog is that after reading this information and listening to these audio and video clips, you can actually hear the difference between one tuning and the other, the palette of colors that can be achieved by this, the timbrical quality, and most important, that you can see the difference in the way baroque music is performed by electric guitar players today and how it can be performed in the future.
Here I will draw a comparison between modern historical performance and contemporary performance of Baroque solo music. First, we have Viola da Gamba soloist and pedagogue Paolo Pandolfo giving such an amazing rendition of the Bach Cello Suite No.3 in C major I Prelude BWV 1009. This performance can only make me think of how Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe or Marin Marais would have performed a Bach Cello Suite on the Bass Viol.
Here we have the great Russian cellist, conductor, pedagogue, pianist and composer Maestro Mstislav Rostropovich, giving a contemporary rendition of the Bach Cello Suite No.3 in C major I Prelude BWV 1009. Of course you can notice right away the difference in pitch (the version by Pandolfo is transposed to F major), but you can still hear the difference of the A tuned to 415 hz and the A tuned in the range of the 440 hz with Rostropovich. Also the interpretation, the dinamic range, and tempo are two completely different worlds. That’s exactly the difference between historical performance and contemporary performance.
Here we have Baroque violinist, pedagogue and conductor Andrew Manze giving a performance of the Bach Violin concerto in A minor III Allegro Assai BWV 1041 with the Academy of Ancient Music. Again, this is such a magnificent performance in many ways. First of all, the sound of the gut strings tuned to A=415 hz on a violin with baroque performance setup gives such a warm and amazing projection. This is one of the reasons why I love historical performances so much.
To draw the comparison with the performance of Andrew Manze and the Academy of Ancient Music, I want to add this contemporary performance by violinist Hilary Hahn and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Jeffrey Kahane. You can hear right away the difference in pitch, not to mention that the sound is brighter, lighter, and most important, the vibrato is very romantic in style.
Now, I want to make very clear that with all of this I am not trying to say in any way that contemporary performance of Baroque music is wrong at all. What I am trying to do is bring out the different sound, colors, and timbers that can be achieved by following the modern historical performance pitch in Baroque music interpretation, and in what ways we can make use of this as electric guitar players.
If you have any questions or comments regarding this particular entry, you can leave me a comment below, send me a message from the team page or via my website at http://www.oscar-lugo.com/